Why am I so sad about the loss of phone boxes when they are practically useless? – The Guardian

It’s a mark of how we don’t share any more, even if the idea of using a receiver someone else has just used now seems barbaric
A frequent question asked by my children – “When can I get a phone?” – was broadened, recently, and with one eye on strategy, to “When did you get a phone?” Ha! Massive tactical error. My children are seven, and prior to last week had no idea what that question entailed. “When did I get a phone?” I said slowly, relishing the lightning rush of memory and the Ancient Mariner mode about to kick in. “We didn’t have phones at your age. Or at high school. Or at college.” Or even, I realised with a shock, remembering a call I made from a booth in Edinburgh in 1998, in my early 20s, post-college. “I didn’t get a phone until I was 23 and in London.” Owl-eyed, they deliberated. Gather close, children, and let me tell you about pay phones.
The red phone boxes of Britain are rightly beloved, but even in the US, where pay phones are either unlovely booths in Perspex or banked at half-height in metal, the news last week that “the final New York City public pay telephone” was being removed triggered a rush of nostalgic coverage. At the corner of Seventh Avenue and 50th Street, people gathered to watch. The New York Times sent a reporter. Even 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, there were 30,000 registered pay phones in the city and if that number hasn’t quite dwindled to zero – four public pay phones will remain, in perpetuity, on the Upper West Side, I guess as some kind of time capsule – clearly we’ve reached an ending of sorts. As the last two booths of Times Square were lifted on to a truck, the crowd took photos on the technology that killed them.
Publicity for this development was encouraged by the city in the interests of promoting various replacement initiatives, or as Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, put it poetically, “truly the end of an era but also, hopefully, the start of a new one with more equity in technology access”. In Britain, where a mere 21,000 public telephones remain, a similar conversation is taking place. Last year, Ofcom promised to maintain phone boxes in areas of high accident rates and poor mobile reception, and to ban BT from scrapping too many of them. Still, those parts of the country covered by phone boxes remains a tiny fraction of what it once was, and priorities have moved on: to establish free public call facilities, USB charging stations and wifi kiosks.
From a practical point of view, no one will be mourning this transition. Emotionally, of course, it’s a different story. For anyone over 40, the immediate question, sadly asked in the face of the Last Booths of Manhattan, was: where is Superman going to change now? Images from other movies flooded in. What quicker shorthand for victimhood than the dangling receiver, still swinging, when help arrives too late? The vandalised phone booth, the agonising wait in line for a phone to become free, the dramatic potential of an unlogged, unanswered call, not to mention a phrase to strike fear in every 80s child’s heart – “They cut the phones lines” – all obsolete now.
One of the four remaining phone boxes in Manhattan stands at the end of my street. It’s an underwhelming site. Every time I pass it, I feel a rush less of nostalgia than revulsion. It’s a mark of how accustomed we’ve become not to sharing facilities, that the idea of actually using a public phone brings on a shudder akin to licking the sidewalk. Even without the debris of empty coffee cups and cigarette butts that habitually created a drift in the corner, the notion of putting one’s mouth against a receiver someone else has just used seems, in 2022, barbaric. Fancy little gents we’ve become, haven’t we?
Still, the memories are dear. Corner of the High Street and the Aylesbury Road, two of us jammed into the phone box to prank-call Mrs Bridges, the deputy head. Corner of Walton Road and the A413, daily calls to say I’m on my way home. Under the stairs by the lodge, in the basement by the arcade games, at the end of the landing in halls: endless calls home, each entailing laps of all three until one of the phones became free. If, even if after all this, you’re feeling insufficiently ancient, a final consideration: while you can buy a red phone box in Britain and use it for something else, the last phones of Manhattan were conveyed to the Museum of the City of New York, for future generations to marvel at like the husks of Pompeii.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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